Here’s a simple fact that we at Orange County REMC know all too well: The 21st century economy runs the risk of leaving much of rural America behind. It’s a concern shared by electric co-ops all across the country, because their strong community ties give them a bird’s-eye view of the quality of life of the members they serve.
Rural America grows most of the food, generates much of the power and manufactures many of the goods that are used throughout the country. When the modern economy threatens to leave much of the country on the wrong side of the ledger, that’s bad news regardless of where you live and work.
Today, fewer than 15 percent of U.S. businesses are located in rural areas and small towns. Bank loans for amounts less than $1 million, primarily to family-owned small businesses and farms, have dropped by nearly half since 2005. These are warning signs for the basic building-blocks of the economy that serve as the foundation of America’s economic stability.
The solution isn’t simple, but it’s within reach. It will take a concerted, long-term commitment from Congress and the administration to reverse this trend.
The Trump administration and Congress already have taken significant steps to jump start programs that bolster the rural economy. That’s helping turn the tide in many communities. But reversing this trend requires a sustained focus across the executive branch and Capitol Hill.
The omnibus budget bill that Congress approved earlier this year is providing key resources and tools to foster development of energy, telecommunications and other essential services in rural America, including $600 million for high-speed internet access in under-served regions.
On January 11th, 2018, Orange County REMC’s Board of Directors unanimously made the progressive decision to obtain funding for a project that would provide high-speed broadband services over a fiber optic connection to all of its members. A project that will bridge the digital divide by meeting the current and future needs of our members.
Other sections of the omnibus bill fully fund low-interest government loans or enhance the efficiency of permitting for rural electric programs to improve grid reliability.
These are positive steps. But there’s more work to do.
As local businesses built by the consumers we serve, electric cooperatives have meaningful ties to America’s rural communities. And they are making strategic infrastructure investments to give communities the flexibility to adapt to tomorrow’s energy needs, investing $12 billion annually in the areas that they serve.
That’s why co-ops have launched community microgrids, lead the nation in the deployment of community solar facilities and have invested in new XPRIZE carbon capture research.
But it takes more than smart energy infrastructure to rejuvenate rural communities. Co-ops also leverage public-private partnerships to enhance the quality of life.
Over the last two decades, co-ops have partnered with community stakeholders through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural economic development programs on hundreds of projects to construct essential infrastructure, renovate hospitals, build libraries and expand businesses. Co-ops also use the Rural Energy Savings Program to work with consumers on energy efficiency solutions to their homes to save money on their energy bills.
There’s a major piece of legislation moving in Congress that offers an opportunity to bolster these important public-private programs while giving rural America an additional boost: the Farm Bill.
As Congress continues discussing the Farm Bill, it should support a stronger rural America and enhance key rural development programs by including:
- Additional funding for rural broadband grants and loans. A reliable, modern grid and vibrant rural communities depend on a robust communications infrastructure.
- Ample support for proven rural economic development programs.
- A focus on accelerating energy innovation to build new renewable energy resources and modernize the electric grid.
- Continued funding for rural electrification programs.
The need to invest in rural America is real for all of us. So too are the opportunities for our leaders to make a meaningful difference in its trajectory.